“Chébé is a gift left up in the mountain by God so it can bring down our hair to great lengths,” says Néné Izou, a member of the Bassara Arab tribe of Northern Chad. The female members of Izou’s tribe, and other nomadic women of the region, are known for their thick and lustrous hair, which often falls well below the belly button. The key to retaining their lengths? Chébé, an ancient hair-care ritual that’s been practiced by their ancestors for millennia.
In the rocky mountains of Chad’s Guéra region, a native plant with rust-hued flower buds called croton gratissimus, known as Chébé, grows in droves. From February to April, its seeds are harvested, then sun dried, winnowed, and roasted before they are blended into a silky fine powder. “Chébé powder is like a cooking recipe,” says Salwa Petersen of Chad’s Gorane (Dazagarè) tribe with a smile. “Everyone has their own way of doing it.” To prepare the treatment before application, a woman will set out three bowls, one containing water, the second with Chébé powder, and the third with a mix of oils and butters, typically shea butter and sesame oil, says Petersen. Then, between alternating layers of the water and blend of oils and butters, she will spread the Chébé powder through sections of a loved one’s hair—generously, from roots to tips, for maximum moisture—while meticulously braiding the hair into long plaits that trail all the way down the back. “The traditional Chébé powder ritual is an extremely long, time-consuming, and labor-intensive process,” says Petersen. “You need to put aside at least an entire day if you want to follow all the steps.”
The mountains of Chad’s Guéra region, home to the native plant croton gratissimus, known as Chébé. “The Chébé tree is believed to be a magic tree with magic powers,” says Petersen.
Video by Ruth Ossai
The Chébé seeds being winnowed to remove impurities at Petersen’s all-female workshop in Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena. Once cleaned, they will be transformed into an extract for the modern Chébé du Tchad hair cream.
Chébé can be traced back more than a thousand years through petroglyphs and rock art paintings found in the sandstone peaks of the Ennedi Plateau in the Sahara. “Chébé is really important to us because we consider healthy, beautiful long hair as the ultimate symbol of femininity and vitality,” explains Petersen. While typically performed a few times a week, Chébé, like many Chadian beauty rituals, can also mark different rites of passage, such as when a young girl reaches puberty or becomes a mother. “When I smell the spicy fragrance of Chébé, I’m immediately transported under a nomad tent, listening to traditional music and the gossip and laughter of the women of my family,” says Petersen. “Chébé is a great excuse to hang out with our elders, moms, sisters, daughters, aunts, cousins, and friends.”
From harvest to hair, Chébé represents the spirit of African beauty, says Nsibentum, a Congolese hairologist who has dedicated his life to educating the world about the continent’s various ancient beauty rituals. “Beauty is being in harmony with everything that surrounds us and everything that is within us,” says Nsibentum. He emphasizes that joint acts of hair care, like Chébé, are especially treasured. “It is an intense moment of sharing, of transmitting know-how and culture,” says Nsibentum. “These are privileged moments of communion and transformation of nature, either for cosmetic purposes or to nourish oneself from within.” These customary gatherings between family members ensure that their centuries-old recipes and rituals are preserved and passed on by each new generation.
For the traditional ritual of Chébé, as demonstrated here by members of the Ouled Badri and Bassara Arab tribes, Chébé seeds are grilled and then pounded with a wooden pestle and mortar into a silky fine powder.
Today, Chébé is still very much a tradition local to Chad. But word of it as a potent conditioning treatment for natural hair is starting to spread thanks in no small part to Petersen. “With urbanization and globalization, Chad’s rich traditions, many of which are based on oral transmission, are fast disappearing,” she explains, noting that tribes are shrinking, especially among younger members. “I want to make sure that this extraordinary heritage is well preserved for us and future generations.” A citizen of Chad, Petersen, who graduated from the Sorbonne and Harvard Law School (she was the first person from Chad to attend), began her career as a lawyer before transitioning to beauty, working in product development for big names like L’Oréal Paris. Over the past few years, Petersen, who now lives in Germany with her husband and daughter, has poured her extensive knowledge of ancestral Chadian beauty rituals into a popular YouTube channel and an eponymous beauty brand. The latter is making the Chébé treatment more accessible globally in the form of a rich hair cream, Chébé du Tchad, powered by a first-of-its-kind potent croton gratissimus extract.
As Petersen structured her business, she prioritized sustainability: All ingredients are sourced through fair-trade practices, while the final products are packaged using recyclable materials and transported with green electricity and carbon neutral shipments. In support of local female entrepreneurship, Petersen creates jobs and pays the local Chadian women that work in her Chébé workshop, where the Chébé seeds are sifted and cleaned, a salary that’s three times the average local salary. With the preservation of her home country perennially top of mind, she donates 2% to the African Parks network to support Chad conservation. “For our elders, one of the essential qualities that every human being must have is a sense of observation,” says Nsibentum. “Chébé is a rare plant that only grows in one specific region of the world and that means that we must protect and take care of it, give back and balance the scale.” He credits Petersen for doing her part to sustain the equilibrium of Chad while also building women’s economic empowerment.
During the Chébé ritual, older women typically apply the hair treatment for younger members of the tribe. Chébé powder is spread through the hair, alternating between layers of water and a blend of oils and butters. This is a special time to “catch up on the latest gossip while applying Chébé and drinking ungodly amount of green tea with mint all day long,” says Petersen.
The intricate small braids along the hair line and middle partings, which are sometimes adorned with jewelry, are called “gouroune,” says Petersen. They are designed for edge control and to keep partings neat. They can also be symbolic. “Two braids in the middle instead of one is exclusive to married women,” explains Petersen. “The way we braid our hair in Chad sends a message.”
With climate change intensifying, Chad’s sprawling plains and majestic mountain ranges are under threat. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, experts say that Africa—despite being responsible for only around three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions—will be the region hardest hit by global warming with rising temperatures and more severe droughts. “Climate change is very much felt in Chad–the Sahara Desert is coming closer and closer and Lake Chad, which is so key to the region, has shrunk unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It didn’t dry because of overuse of the water, it’s because of global warming. It’s very sad because the nomads are victims of something they haven’t created,” says Petersen. “Their lifestyle doesn’t create pollution.” Chébé—made of natural materials that biodegrade after they’re used—is a powerful example of the tribes’ inherently sustainable, time-tested approach. “Everyone is talking about composting now, but this is just part of life,” Petersen says. “It shows how you can be one with nature.”
Last month, photographer Ruth Ossai spent a week traveling through Chad with Petersen to document the Chébé ritual performed by its nomadic tribes. They visited the Batha and Guéra regions to see where the Chébé shrub is harvested and spent time in the two villages, known as ferricks, of the Ouled Badri and Bassara Arab tribes. “I was a Chébé fan before, so to explore the traditions further and from the actual source directly from Chad was very personal to me,” says Ossai, who grew up between southern Nigeria and northern England. Ossai took portraits of these Chadian women against her signature colorful backdrops: from mother-daughter duo Arafa Makki and Aché Adoum, to Néné Izou, who is considered among the most knowledgeable women when it comes to the traditional Chébé ritual. As Ossai puts it, the goal was to capture the women’s “own personal styles, their individualistic personalities, and their own dynamism.”